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Topical Questions

Volume 601: debated on Thursday 29 October 2015

Since I last addressed the House at Question Time, I have seen at first hand the work that Network Rail is doing as a result of the Government’s £38 billion investment in the railways. That includes the £44 million regeneration of Manchester Victoria station, which will finally make it a station of which Manchester can be proud—in 2009, it was voted the worst station in Britain—the £750 million rebuilding of Birmingham New Street, which is transforming a station that is at the heart of Britain’s rail network, and the reconstruction of the Farnworth tunnel, which will allow electric trains to run from Manchester to Bolton and on to Preston. Once completed, it will allow diesel trains to be used on other routes in the north-west, providing over 30,000 more seats per week and helping to build a northern powerhouse.

You will be pleased to learn, Mr Speaker, that I shall not begin by referring to Sheffield Wednesday’s impressive victory over Arsenal the other night. [Laughter.] What I will do is refer to Sir David Higgins’s report, in which he describes transport links between Sheffield and Manchester as a matter of national concern, and as probably the worst links between any two major cities in Europe.

Will the Secretary of State seriously consider two proposals? The first is that HS3 should link not merely Manchester and Leeds but Manchester and Sheffield, and the second is that serious consideration should be given to the building of a road tunnel under the Pennines. That is the only serious way in which to link Sheffield and Manchester without damaging the national park.

I agree that more needs to be done to improve the links between Sheffield and Manchester, and I very much hope that when we announce the new franchise for both TransPennine and Northern Rail we will go some way to meeting the demands for that. The two projects the hon. Gentleman specifically talks about are huge projects. Work is being done at the moment by Colin Matthews on whether a tunnel is the right way forward, and we will expect more updates on that by the Budget of next year. I do understand the hon. Gentleman’s points on HS3 and the infrastructure commission will look at them.

T6. Figures released by the Department show that the Severn bridge is currently generating about £78 million-worth of profit over and above the cost of maintenance of that bridge. Does that not go to prove that as soon as it goes back into public ownership on 1 April 2018, there is a great opportunity for this Government to slash the tolls on the bridge—bring it down to under £1 per car —and still have enough money to pay for the maintenance of it? (901892)

The toll levels are currently set by the concessionaire, Severn River Crossing, to repay the construction, finance, maintenance and operations costs. We are expecting the costs to have been recovered early in 2018, and at that point the concession will end and the crossings will revert to the UK Government. We are currently working on what the future of tolling might be. I have heard what my hon. Friend has said and I will keep him updated on progress.

We will shortly hear whether the north-east plans for local oversight of bus services are recommended for approval. We on this side of the House have always supported Labour’s councillors on Tyne and Wear, including when they were subjected to appalling abuse over this issue. I welcome the Minister’s late conversion to the cause of bus tendering, but does he agree that the powers in the buses Bill must be available to all communities that want them, including in rural and isolated areas?

May I start by welcoming the hon. Lady to her position? She knows what is going to come next: I have been doing this job for a little over three years and this is the fourth shadow Secretary of State I have seen. Shall we just say we will see whether there are more to come?

The hon. Lady sort of asserts that she knows what is in the buses Bill. Considering that it has not yet been published, I am interested to know how that has been achieved, but the simple point is—we are being very open about this—that there will be extra opportunities for areas where elected mayors are put in place, and they can take advantage of them.

I was hoping for a straight answer to a straight question, but let us try again. With more than 2,000 routes lost or downgraded and fares up by 25% since the last round of spending cuts, will the Secretary of State today rule out any plans to slash support for buses even further in the forthcoming spending review?

I am not in a position at this stage to announce what the spending review will be. I am afraid that the hon. Lady, like every other Member of the House, will need to wait until the spending review is announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 25 November. I hope that is a very straight answer.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in addition to the many defects of the Type 317 rolling stock that operates on the West Anglia line, there occurred this week a case of a train stopping—screeching to a halt—between Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth apparently for lack of air? Does this not suggest that more importance should be attached to awarding the franchise to the bidder that can bring forward the most solid assurances for new rolling stock?

I will make inquiries into what my right hon. Friend has just informed me about. I do not know about the specific case, but I can assure him that I will do by later on today. He is absolutely right about the need to improve the rolling stock availability and that is one of the things I hope the invitation to tender on the line will do.

T2. What measures is Network Rail taking to ensure that skilled rail jobs no longer appear on the tier 2 shortage occupation list? (901888)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, of the huge amounts of steel bought by Network Rail, the vast majority—some 95%—is bought from UK production, but if I have understood his question wrongly, perhaps he could write to me and I will write back to him.

The Secretary of State mentioned the great success of the Norwich in 90 campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). As he will know, Worcester is just six miles further from London than Norwich is, as the crow flies, and 15 miles further away by car, yet it regularly takes my constituents more than 150 minutes to reach the capital by train. Will he do everything he can to lean on Great Western and Network Rail to get our service down to under two hours on a regular basis?

My hon. Friend and other Members—including the one my officials like to call “the MP for Witney”—have campaigned extremely hard on this very issue. There is a lot of work being done on finding ways to improve journey times, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest there is a lot to be done. We have started the work on delivery.

T3. Rail commuter routes into Manchester are soon to lose trains to London Midland, raising memories of the TransPennine Express rolling stock debacle, which cost taxpayers £20 million and led to some services being downgraded. The Secretary of State had the opportunity to prevent the loss of TransPennine trains, but he chose not to use it. Did he have a similar option in the latest case? Is not this yet another example of fragmented railways letting passengers down? (901889)

The hon. Gentleman talks about franchising letting people down, but I think he should just wait and see what comes out of the two franchises involving TransPennine and Northern. It is worth remembering that in 2004, when that franchise was last let, it was let on a no-growth basis. That is what the last Government thought about the northern powerhouse and the services that were required in that area. That is not the way in which this Government are approaching it, and I invite him to see what announcements we will make shortly.

Will the Minister give me an assurance that the new stations fund will be accessible to applications from all councils? As she knows, the proposal for a new station at Haxby in my constituency has one of the strongest business cases anywhere in the north of England, and my constituents would benefit hugely from such a station.

I would be delighted to review that matter with my hon. Friend. The new stations fund announced in the Budget is of course open to all applicants.

T4. The Sheffield city region, now strengthened by Derbyshire Dales, is a real hub for manufacturing in the rail industry. Does the Secretary of State agree that this presents a real opportunity for forward planning to get the manufacturing companies together to prepare bids for HS2? (901890)

Much as it causes me pain, I will agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right to say that we need to ensure that the companies in the Sheffield and Derbyshire areas, as well as other companies, are in a position to take advantage of HS2.

Pendle residents are concerned about the state of local roads across our area. Given that the Government have made £6 billion available for pothole repairs, how can we encourage local authorities to deliver the repairs that we all want to see?

We are providing local authorities with financial support amounting to a record £6 billion between now and 2021 for highways maintenance. We are also encouraging them to look at the way in which they manage their programmes, and 85% of local authorities in England have now signed up to the highways maintenance efficiency programme. This is how we are supporting councils. We are talking about a significant investment here: it is enough to deal with 18 million potholes per year, and it is making a difference to the quality of our road network.

T5. The port of Newport is the second largest steel handling port in the United Kingdom and it is likely to suffer grievously from the current steel closures. What has the Minister done to assess the consequential job losses in transport and elsewhere as a result of the Government’s neglect of the steel industry? Will he persuade his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to end his policy of gifting British jobs to Chinese workers? (901891)

As the Minister with responsibility for ports, I am all too aware of their importance in getting exports out of our country and getting imports in. Yesterday I was at the port of Bristol, which is going to benefit from developments in the nuclear industry, which will be partly financed by the Chinese, and I am going to Felixstowe later today to see the developments there.

The Government’s commitment to dual the A45 between Stanwick and Thrapston and improve the Chowns Mill roundabout was warmly welcomed by east Northamptonshire residents. Will the Minister now update us on that work?

T7. Many of my constituents rely on the No. 44 bus to get to Southport hospital, but the service has been axed as a result of cuts by the Secretary of State’s Department. He talked earlier about the opportunity of having directly elected mayors, but is it not the case that if the cuts continue, the additional powers will be meaningless and of no help to my constituents or to anybody else? (901893)

I want to see an expansion and a widening of services to all our constituents, which is why the Government are supporting record transport investment in this Parliament.

There are swathes of motorway that are under a 50 mph restriction. There is a 20 mile stretch of a 50 mph zone on the M62 and M60, with people working on a very, very small section of that road. Will the Minister tell the Highways Agency that the work should be done for the convenience of the road user and not of the agency?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Long stretches of roadworks frustrate drivers, especially as they near completion. I have raised that matter with Highways England and challenged it to deliver its work in sections that are shorter in length and over a shorter period of time. It has undertaken to do so by reducing the length of works to between a third and a half of their current size and by having more intensive and longer hours of working, including more night-time and weekend working.

T8. In an earlier answer, the Minister referred to linking up the great cities of the north, but again did not refer to Hull. Given that we have had the pausing and the unpausing of the electrification of several routes, when will the Secretary of State give the green light to the privately financed initiative to electrify the line all the way to Hull? (901894)

I do apologise to the hon. Lady. I am at a slight disadvantage because of your rulings, Mr Speaker, because if I were to mention all the great cities in the north, I would be ruled out of order.

Well, I think there are a number of great cities in the north. I am very proud of those cities, but if I named them all, I would get into trouble. I fully accept what the hon. Lady says about the importance to Hull, which is why I have been able to move forward with some of the infrastructure investment for the A63, which is very important for her area. As for the extra money we gave to take the scheme that she is talking about up to GRIP 2, I am awaiting further reports on that particular scheme.

Yesterday, there was an important point of order from a Plaid Cymru Member in which he pointed out how excellent the Transport Department is in answering questions compared with the Treasury, which is very poor. Has the Secretary of State been contacted by the Chancellor to find out how it is done?

I am sure that that is meant to be a helpful question. In the run-up to the spending review, it is not.

T9. As a chartered engineer and a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, I was horrified to learn that software engineering had apparently been used to cheat legitimate regulation and possibly undermine public health. The Secretary of State has criticised Volkswagen, but what discussions has he had with the professional bodies, the Minister of State for Skills and the automotive industry to ensure that this sort of dark engineering has no place in our cars? (901895)

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. As far as that matter is concerned, industry across the piece is very embarrassed by what has happened, and I am pretty sure that it will take proper action to ensure that the right regulatory measures are taken.

Could my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress is being made to bring Crossrail 2 through Harrow and Wealdstone station?

We are out to consultation, and I would have expected my hon. Friend to say what a great job we are doing as far as Crossrail 1 is concerned, However, as I have come to learn in this job, no sooner have we completed one major infrastructure project, than people are always talking about the next one. I am glad that he is in a position to talk about Crossrail 2, because it means that Crossrail 1 is being built.

Last week, the British Airline Pilots Association wrote to the management at Loganair, which operates air services throughout the highlands and islands, about its concern that aircraft are being returned to the line despite being unserviceable. It said:

“In some cases aircraft retain defects that clearly affect flight safety and in others have restrictions placed upon them which render the aircraft effectively unusable in our operating environment.”

These are lifeline services to some of the most economically fragile communities in the country. What can the aviation Minister do to ensure, either through his Department or the Civil Aviation Authority, that our local communities can retain full confidence in these crucial services?

I regularly meet BALPA; indeed, its general secretary, Jim McAuslan, is a good example of how unions can work with Government to promote their members. Safety is our top priority for air travel in the UK, and all our airlines have to meet strict safety maintenance requirements. Compliance with these requirements is overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority. I understand that the CAA is aware of Loganair’s recent difficulties, but is satisfied that the company is operating safely and maintaining its aircraft in accordance with the necessary safety requirements. The matter will, of course, be kept under review.

We have overrun, but I want to hear a brief inquiry from a member of the Select Committee. I call Mr Martin Vickers.

In recent weeks, passengers on the Cleethorpes to Manchester rail services have had to put up with regular cancellations due to driver shortage. Passengers do not care whether that is the company’s problem or ASLEF’s. Will the Rail Minister use her good offices to sort the matter out, please?

I would be delighted to do so, or to try to do so. This is why the new invitations to tender and franchises have customer service and passenger experience right at their heart.